The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $25,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered jointly by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been Donald Revell (2004), Eamon Grennan (2003), Madeline DeFrees (2002), Fanny Howe (2001), David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996) and Marilyn Hacker (1995). This year the award goes to Anne Winters for The Displaced of Capital. Jurors were Louise Glück, Alan Shapiro and Robert Pinsky, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Poems New & Selected, by Marianne Boruch (Oberlin); Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002, by Sharon Olds (Knopf); Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf); New and Selected Poems, by Michael Ryan (Houghton Mifflin); and Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems, 1965-2003, by Jean Valentine (Wesleyan).
Anne Winters’s The Displaced of Capital, this year’s winner of the Lenore Marshall Award, is a polymath’s symphony of praise and revulsion, for a specific city and for civilization itself. The book is about the partly visible, largely unknown conduits and systems that connect things: poverty and opera, the aisles of Home Depot and the oak owl that witnessed the roundup of Jews in the Cathedral of Ulm, the currency exchange and the tenement, geology and engineering, injustice and the transit system.
Winters is free from expected political poses but full of political ardor. She finds the perfect terrain for her subject, actual and symbolic, in the city of New York, with its surface grid of streets, the vertical compendium of its buildings and its underlying net of cables, pipes and tunnels. The city also flows and changes–“America’s longest river” in “Night Wash,” from Winters’s earlier volume The Key to the City.
In a characteristic move, her poem “Cold-Water Flats” at its conclusion makes the river literal as well as figurative. It begins by calling up student days in the bygone Little Italy of Manhattan with a few swift lines, relishing the jangle of consonants that invoke the physical details–bulbs and tubs, the zinc-lidded and the amber-bellied, the courtly and the court and the chord:
By the light of a dangling bulb, at their kitchen tables, the students
grind at history, mathematics, courtly love…
The zinc-lidded bathtubs in their kitchens swarm
with gravid, amber-bellied roaches.
Across the court, in a Met broadcast, Puccini
fails to make one chord of twenty cold-water flats.
This is not local color or reminiscence, nor is it nostalgia or a moralistic lament for timeless poverty. The poet has a subject, and the subject has to do with the infinite, multiple layers of causality, suffering and accomplishment that underlie everything. The last cold-water flats in the city are just one human layer of the world’s much laminated history, pressured and twisted by the forces of time.
For example, on a personal level, when the butcher sitting in front of his shop tips his cap, there is a story behind the gesture:
Electricity: direct current. Water-closets
(unheated) at the ends of the hallways. Each May,
the grandson himself comes by with a white-papered can
for “The Bride of Saint Francis.” I’ve seen
the grandfather sweep his cash register clean
for just such a can–for two plastic-corded fratelli. He it was
chewed me out when I coolly bought his “Ground Meat for Pets”
at ten cents a pound. Ever after I must submit
to the complex folds of his frown, his muse overweighing
of ground beef in shining carnets of wax paper. And then
all summer he’ll rise, one hand on his sidewalk chair,
black-enameled, back-tilted among
the men’s chairs as I pass
and touch his welt-seamed cap
not to me but to her
to Donna Povertà! barely tokened
in my ephemeral Village-poverty.
The end-rhymes “can/seen/clean” resemble the plastic belt cords of the monks or the black-enameled chair–pleasurable quick moments that compress what some kinds of narrative prose might prolong tediously.
More ambitious than mere narrative, concerned with more than that “ephemeral Village-poverty,” the poem takes the “cold-water” of its title literally deeper:
…the super’s wife
anathematizes the plumbing. Below me, even deep
in winter, the just-audible trickle
of Minetta Creek, bricked over
a century ago.
This is the underground stream that stands for Winters’s sense of live, unseen realities that flow beneath what we see. At street level, in the winter snow, in Minetta Lane named for that buried creek, we see “ochre columns of smoke from the garbage cans.” And then, a concluding vision makes everything actually as well as symbolically deeper, yet also plainer:
…And in the walls, from taps
in the sink and the tub, cold water. Its tang
of stone and metal, icy
at faucet-mouth, numbed lips,
unceasing arrival, the water
which later, I think, will seem to have been
most precious–being useful, humble, chaste.
The qualifications of “I think” and “will seem” temper the positive adjectives of the final line, make the gratitude for water and the wonder at it a little more tentative and reserved. But the qualifying, tentative phrases also reflect an important quality of skepticism in Winters’s ambition: She reaches far, and undertakes large expanses, partly in order to convey the limitations of what can be known.
That principle infuses the narrative poem “An Immigrant Woman,” a story of disaster framed by the witnessing account of a friendship inside the city, crossing boundaries of social and ethnic categories. The friendship is in some sense fostered by the challenges and ways of the city, then dissolved by them. The engulfing speed of life, the enormous systems of the city, reflect the even greater forces that make people mysteries to one another. The city accelerates fundamental intimacies and incomprehensions as it magnifies needs and alienations.
The language of scale, speed and variety Winters invents can display an amazing nerve as it undertakes to reflect those qualities in its material. She twists or revolves things to make them catch the light many ways, and she uses many kinds of word, clashing levels of speech. The last stanza of this book’s opening poem, “The Mill-Race,” reconsiders and amends the poem’s central metaphor–rejects it, and then restores it! Here is the passage:
It’s not a water-mill really, labor. It’s like the nocturnal
paper-mill pulverizing, crushing each fiber of rag into atoms,
or the workhouse tread-mill, smooth-lipped, that wore down a London of doxies and sharps,
or the flour-mill, faërique, that raised the cathedrals and wore out hosts of dust-demons,
but it’s mostly the miller’s curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-
mill, that makes the sea, salt.
The big historical perspective, the range, the lists and the oddball vocabulary (“faërique” and “doxies” and “dust-demons”), like the long lines, will for many readers recall Walt Whitman. And the passage does openly and even vigorously contradict itself. But Winters, like most significant American poets, is in a dual tradition, of which Whitman represents only one half.
The Whitmanian vision radiates outward to include everything, but Winters also reflects the fiercely concentrated vision of Emily Dickinson, the immensities compacted into fiery pinpoints. If the New World seems too savage or too brazen for the courtly art of poetry, those two parental figures seem to imply, then fine–unburdened of expectation the art will go further. Sometimes Dickinson seems to imply that never having seen a Moor or the Sea she will find a stranger, more extreme inner landscape. That acceptance of excess as a starting point, embarking on outrageous extremes of inclusion or concentration, has characterized a wide range of American poetries: an element in T.S. Eliot’s audacious conglomerations, it could be argued, as well as the jazzy alertness of William Carlos Williams.
Excess, the idea of going further, for Winters has everything to do with the glamorous monster of New York, and often that means, as with Minetta Creek under the walks of Greenwich Village, going quite literally farther down: into not only the subterranean but even the prehistoric realities under Manhattan. Her sequence “A Sonnet Map of Manhattan” proceeds uptown from a poem set at Wall and Pine to Houston, through the Village and past First Avenue, continuing in a dozen unrhymed sonnets that speed through Midtown and past Winters’s native Riverside Drive border of Harlem and the 168th Street Armory to end with the “elliptic, archaic smile” of a 10-year-old drug scout on 175th Street. In “Sixty-Seventh Street: Tosca With Man in Bedrock,” it is the evening of the Met’s first winter broadcast. The audience in the “cantilevered mezzanine, underlit,/stipple-eyed in its stoles and fur tippets, hangs/breathless.” The daring play on “hangs”–the audience hangs in both the architectural and psychological senses, with the very word hanging at the end of the line–is a tribute to Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” aria, with its sense of great issues trembling at a verge. “I lived for art,” sings Tosca, pleading for justice, for life to make sense, and the sonnet plunges past the roots of life itself:
…Straight down, past sallow platforms, sewer
outfalls and steam lines, the man in the bedrock
side-steps in his worklamp’s flattened yellow,
spools out more wire, lowers his radio probe
to the back of a sunken centenary main
(fed by watersheds in the still half-glacial Catskills)
and hears, through bell curves of pings, each note
vibrate off his shaft of Precambrian schist. Gray, void…
our Manhattan Schist, laid down too early for fossils.
The brio of this passage is pleasing in itself–the informed, careful poetic medium of Winters showing itself more than adequate to the pace and the bizarre coherences of a technological world. Her intelligence penetrates and incorporates the material like a camera, but faster than computer-generated special effects, with more social nuance and more kinds of information. Tosca’s question–why have I been repaid with pain for a life in art, perche me ne rimuneri cosi?–has the commercial, worldly implications of pay or remuneration. Winters’s poem brings her own roving, inclusive, postindustrial awe to the mystery, looking downward for roots as Tosca looks heavenward.
The poet’s way of thinking and the city’s ways too are reflected in a live phrase like “sunken centenary main”–the two plain Old English words as if sent by the Department of Public Works to flank the contrasting, Latinate “centenary” as if it were a legal document, with the sounds of consonant and vowel conveying the girth and solidity of that thick, long-ago earth-swallowed water pipe. The water main, the radio probe, the worklamp–these manifest human arts too, and like the art of Tosca they are mortal causes for wonder.
Wonder may be the central emotion of this book, rather than the political feelings evoked by the title, which sounds so much like a quotation from Marx. (I am told it is not.) Political feelings the book has, abundantly, but as with Winters’s earlier book The Key to the City, its spirit is closer to the tenement photographs of Jacob Riis than to the writing of Marx.
The final poem in the volume exemplifies that feeling of wonder, with an unpredictable source, demonstrating Winters’s range of material and feeling. The poem, titled “The First Verse,” meditates and associates and extrapolates from the first Hebrew words of Genesis. Here Winters’s image for infinite complexity and mystery is not the subterranean but a surface of proliferating channels and branches. And wonder is not confined to solemn awe but can include comedy, the scholar’s comedy of knowledge, the unsolvable knot that ties meanings to other meanings:
…The Bible in Hebrew–irreducible!
Yet at the first verse, a hair-thin net of cracks
appears, each crack a vast highway, and wildly we leap
onto this first, this universal, cobble, BRESHIT. “In-the-beginning.”
Or maybe, “In-the-beginning-of.” Of what, you may ask–of “making”? Maybe–
and so the slight break ramifies and blooms
into shelf-feet of commentaries, monographs, and now
you must swiftly ransack your Sumerian–
yes, without Enuma Elish there’s no understanding the matter–
Within a few lines, she is saying in exasperated but amused wonderment, “But I forgot to mention/the Crimean War”– quite validly, since during that conflict:
…It seems the war upset the local
Karaites, who saddled up and fled
to St. Petersburg, taking their cherished, oldest dated
scrolls of the Bible, wrapped for freshness, in date leaves, and left them
in the public library. But naturally, the public library!
And so these sectarians, not even actually, exactly,
Jewish–the rabbis’ deep-dyed foes–preserved the inerrant Word,
though not without hosts of tiny scribal errors
some day to set shuddering
whole forests of editors, compositors, microfilmers–
There is an ebullient, entranced verve to this picture of the unknowable. Indeterminance has spurred Winters to learn ancient Hebrew, and to follow those hairline flaws as though they were a vital road map. In this regard, her work is the opposite of an opaque demonstration that language is inadequate. On the contrary, she learns languages to study the shapes and varieties of their inadequacies. Like the city, like the Bible, language in her poems is an alluring maze where the mind is propelled with the physicality of music, in consonant and vowel.
Vivid and reflective, documentary and visionary, re-imagining the city of New York with the same urgency that ponders the Hebrew of Genesis, this is a passionate, artful and re-readable book. It is also a strikingly contemporary book. For all its reaching back–into prehistoric geology, into Sumerian, or on a personal level into the time of actual cold-water flats in Greenwich Village–the book is also fascinated by the drive-in teller, the pre-teen drug scout, the construction tremors that weaken buildings on the Brooklyn littoral. Her sympathy with immigrants of small means who are displaced by the projects of Capital is humane but not sentimental; it is driven partly by the scholarly need to know the originating roots of everything–philological or economic. That avid curiosity inspires her inventions and keeps the pace of her work lively. With its extraordinary speed, scope and audacity, Anne Winters’s poetry both expresses our time and resists it.